Blood Knot, Signature Center, New York

Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot received only one performance at its world premiere in Johannesburg in 1961. It has since become a staple at theatres across the world, so the decision of the Pershing Square Signature Center to inaugurate its $75m theatre complex with the drama is defensible. I wish I could say that I enjoyed this production, directed by the author, as much as I relished wandering about the Frank Gehry-designed facility, replete with three auditorium-style theatres, a studio theatre, a bookstore, and a café.

The play gives us two brothers of mixed race: Morris, a light-skinned man played by Scott Shepherd, and Zachariah, dark-skinned and played by Colman Domingo. Morris has decided to move in with his brother, who works a punishing job in the outside world while Morris tends their shack in Korsten, a coloured neighbourhood on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Blood Knot was first performed at a time when the influence of Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot was paramount among playwrights, and the stamp of the tramp is everywhere. After Morris has shown great care preparing the foot bath he administers Zach every evening, the minimal plot unfolds: Zach strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a white girl, and deludes himself with fantasies that they will form some kind of relationship.

This conceit offers Shepherd, who will soon return to an acclaimed production of the F Scott Fitzgerald-inspired Gatz, and Domingo, who was indelible in the recent Kander and Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys, opportunities for creative gestures and line readings. The overall effect, however, is quite tedious.

The second act moves along more briskly. The brothers agree that the fairer Morris will have a preliminary meeting with the pen pal, and will be fitted out in a fine suit. After putting on the costume, however, Morris discovers long-buried disdain he has felt for his brother.

The actors navigate Christopher H Barreca’s chaotic, collapsible setting manfully and I wish I could say that their attempts to enliven the material engaged me either intellectually or emotionally. I prefer to see this production as a prelude to the Signature’s season of Fugard, which includes My Children! My Africa! and The Train Driver, as well as a preliminary to activities at this spectacular addition to the New York theatre scene.

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